It was nearly 2AM local time in the City of Lights when I came into the Mare Inebrium along with my...we'll call him my friend. It seems appropriate somehow. A buxom beauty named Blanche took my order--one scotch whisky on the rocks. My friend declined a drink, sighting his lack of money. Bah! I knew better. It was the whole reason we were where we were in the first place.
Max the bartender stood behind the main serving area of the Mare Inebrium along with Blanche and some kid I understood to be named Larrye. Standing on the other side of the bar was a tweedy looking fella--you know, the balding, beady-eyed stuffed shirts who always seem to work for rich and unpleasant entities. I should know. My clients were often surrounded by them.
I thought of my current client, Grym. I'd only actually met him once since I took this case. Most of my dealings were with some toady named Lewgan, and I've got to say that at that moment Tweedy was reminding me of Lewgan in a most unpleasant way. I felt in my pockets for that acid medication my doctor had prescribed.
It wasn't that the events at the bar were of great interest me. I'm just an observer. I have to watch and mentally record everything I see because you never know when something will be of use. You see, I'm what they call a Finder--you'd probably recognize the term private-eye better. Finders, simply enough, find things--people usually--that don't want to be found, if you catch my meaning. I'm not what you'd call the greatest Finder ever. That honor probably belongs to the Great Tortana of Gylogog Seven. But, I'm not bad if I do say so myself, and I have a crackerjack if slightly seedy staff.
"Look, Mr..." the tweedy man said, fishing for an answer, all smiley and insincere.
"Max." He stood staring at the man like one of those stones you hear about on Terra, those figures on Easter Island.
"Well, yes, I know your first name. What is your last name, sir?" Tweedy's smile could have blotted out the sun if it had been daylight.
"Max will have to do, my friend." Max's smile would have beaten the sun to a bloody pulp if it had been daylight. I thought Tweedy was going to cower all the way to the door whimpering like a beaten up dog, but he managed to hold his ground.
I raised my glass, and Blanche whisked up with a fresh drink. "Can I get you anything else, pumpkin?" she smiled. Most of the other patrons loved Trixie. Sure, she was something to look at, something I wouldn't necessarily throw out if the moment was right. But this woman was sincere, natural. And she didn't put on any acts. Blanche was short and was not what you'd call svelte. But inside she knew she was an Empress, and god couldn't you see in those eyes of hers.
Smiling, she turned to my friend. "And how about you darlin'? You want somethin' tonight? A drink, some FizzyFuzz, maybe a nice Tweezle daiquiri?" She bent down onto the table, looking straight into my friend's eyes, which should have been enough to make him a ball of elastoputty. "Hey, if you're interested, I can even get you one of Kazsh-ak Tier's cocktails. They have," she paused too long, " a glowing reputation!" She giggled slightly to herself, and then went back to the bar. I knew from the weary expression on her face that Blanche was gamely trying to hide that she was tired, and I knew she wasn't quite being herself. But I still thought she was something.
I turned and looked back at my friend. He was tall with blondish brown hair that was prematurely gray, and his black leather jacket and black sunglasses hid what I was certain was probably a dejected face. "You oughta get something," I said to him, "it might be your only shot at alcohol for some time to come."
"Thanks for the advice," he said, but then he clamed up again. Oh well, I guess I couldn't blame him. After all, on any other world what I'd done would be considered kidnapping. I checked to make sure the shackles connecting his wrist to mine were still secure. Shrugging her shoulders, Blanche walked back to the bar and rejoined the other conversation.
"The problem, uh, Max," Tweedy said, pointing with the end of his electropen to a large sheaf of papers, "is that the owners have insured this establishment for..." He suddenly stopped and looked around the bar. Apparently there were too many people present for his liking. "Well, they've insured this established for this," he pointed to a line on the sheets, "substantial sum of money.
"Whew," Max whistled as if impressed, but I could see that this was done for the benefit of Tweedy alone. "Imagine that. I'm surprised the owners can afford to pay for supplies after overpaying by that much." Tweedy looked very dejected for a second. "I still don't know what this has to do with anything."
"Well, sir, it has everything to do with everything. You've scheduled Mr.," he checked his reports with renewed zeal, "Mr. Larrye to begin working the late night, early morning shifts. Well, are you aware that Larrye was responsible for at least four deaths of Gloomice at the hand of a D'rrish beverage?"
"Yeah," Max said, "so? They weren't going to even pay for their tab. And too, you know, I never open anything clearly marked `radioactive'. Have you tried contacting their embassy for reimbursement?"
"But, surely you see the clear case of negligence here?" Tweedy muttered. Across from me, in another booth, sat a man in a hat and trenchcoat, his thin face twitching from time to time, his cigarette carefully balanced in the same hand in which he held his drink. Next to him, in a military uniform and black pill-box hat, sat a smaller fellow, eyes agleam, twitching his mustache. Seeing me, he raised a glass of Bordeaux and smiled. I raised my glass in return. It disturbed me greatly that I was in agreement with Tweedy on this one issue. Definitely too many people here, I thought to myself. Might want to go on up to the Noir Room.
"Normally," Tweedy continued, opening up a lap-top and punching in some figures, "under the policy you see here, everyone working at the Mare Inebrium is covered for nearly all circumstances. But, in light of what happened that night, and considering the substantial settlement we paid to the relevant familial colonies on Gloomice, we have to insist that Larrye have additional coverage. It is, I'm afraid, quite expensive." He tapped on the keyboard, and a set of large figures must have appeared because Blanche and Larrye both looked astonished.
"Oh my stars," Larrye whimpered, "oh my great, great stars..."
Max gave no overt reaction, maintaining his cool. But I would testify that he very nearly blinked when he saw what was on screen.
"And this has to be paid..." Max started to say.
"...before Larrye can go on shift," Tweedy finished. I hate insurance agents. They enjoy their jobs too much. I finished the rest of my drink and then indicated to my friend that were going to be moving. I armed the stunner switch on my end of the shackles just in case he tried anything, and we stood up and walked towards the stairs. They were narrow and winding, and creaked up a storm, but were sturdy enough. When we reached the second floor, I scanned the various doors and finally found the one I wanted. It was solid black, but the faint outline of celluloid frames were visible if you stared long enough.
Passing an aardvark warrior in the hall along the way, I pushed opened the door, and we entered the Noir Room of the Mare Inebrium.
Inside, it could have been any bar in any old detective picture from the ancient times. I'd never been to Terra, never even dreamed of going there. But the holofilms always thrilled me, were maybe even responsible for the field that I chose to pursue.
We sat in a lowbacked booth, the view of the off-white colored room staring grayly back at us. As I had hoped, there were very few others here other than Hawks the bartender. Chandler the waiter approached our table, his expression grave yet knowing when he looked at my guest.
"What can I get for ya, pal," Chandler said to me. He knew my name; I came here whenever I was on Bethdish. But everyone to him was always pal. I liked him.
"I'm on tab downstairs," I said, a strange emphasis on the `s" sounds subconsciously entering my voice, "I'll have a scotch and soda." I shifted my eyes onto my friend. "He won't have anything, so don't bother askin'."
"Hard luck, ain't it pal," the waiter sneered sympathetically at my friend. "I wouldn't have come to Bethdish if you were in trouble." And then he walked back to the bar, his white apron swaying over his white shirt and black pants.
"What did that fellow mean," my prisoner grumbled softly, suddenly coming out of his silence. I looked at him and smiled the smile of the triumphant.
"He means that in the City of Lights people in my line of work have a distinct advantage." I scratched at a small scar underneath my chin, a hard won badge of honor given me in a bar fight in my youth. "At least they have it if they can afford it."
"And what would that be," he asked, a blank and vaguely interested expression on his face.
"For a price, you can buy a permit to capture an individual, providing of course you're a licensed Finder, and providing you have either deep pockets or deep expense accounts."
"Ahh," he said, lifting his hands up--including the one in the shackle--and slowly rubbing them together, palms flat. "And what do they charge for apprehending a life these days?"
"Did you see that hovercar driver downstairs moping over his pint of dark beer," I queried as I leaned forward in the booth. "Let's just say, the Reever here set a price that is more than that guy'll make in a year."
"I don't take you for a rich man," he said, coming to life enough to insult me, "so you must have a great expense account."
"My client has indeed prospered in his," I paused, "profession. What Grym didn't tell me was why he was willing to pay so much in order to have you caught. You did well; you hid for a long time and I had trouble keeping up with where you'd been, much less where you were going to. Then you made the mistake of coming back here." My expression switched to one of genuine curiosity. I'd caught many in the past, some much harder to find than this fellow had been, but for some reason this time I wanted to know what it was this guy had done.
"Do you know who I am," he muttered, my face reflecting back at me from his sunglasses, "did Grym bother telling you?"
"I know what you did, hustling him out of a lot of money gambling though I don't know exactly how. I know who you purport to be."
"Purport?" he said incredulously, a slight smile crossing his face. Chandler quietly and out of the blue placed my drink on the table. Good man Chandler, always anticipated the spaces between conversations.
"The name you used with him was," I checked my notepad, "was Randy Kay. And I found many who felt Mr. Kay swindled them at cards, holohockey... They just didn't have the funds to pay for my catching you. Mr. Kay's been a busy little gambler the last few years. But you have other names too. Raj Moll, Shelley Pippen, Dean Policia...Sal Manella I think had to be my favorite." The corners of his mouth curled into an almost proud smile. "I will still bet that none of those names are the right ones either."
Randy, Shelley, Dean, Sal...whatever he was calling himself at this moment laughed quietly. "You may be right. You may be right indeed."
"What did you do to this guy, Grym. Huh?"
"It's simple," Randy said, "I hustled him at anti-gravity pool." And he began to tell his story to me...
Well, I'd been wandering the casinos in the tourist areas of Bethdish, at least what passed for them. I mean, if you don't gamble in those places, you just go crazy, or at least you go get drunk. I know if I had to face those pitiful excuses for moons circling up there, I'd get myself completely snockered.
I'd learned enough in my travels to know the real money couldn't be made in the casinos. Sure, some highrollers came with unlimited bank accounts. They could pluck down a million credits easily, lose it, and never even blink or act concerned. That stuff was no good for me either. No, I was in the casinos looking for the real money, the backroom stuff that I knew had to be going on. Specifically, I was looking for Grym.
Well, sure enough I found this shoe shine Angopot who, while giving my footwear a good sliming, told me about Grym and where I could find his crowd. I'd heard of Grym. Anyone who'd ever gotten into gambling had heard of him. Heck...even in my old green days at..., well, where's not important. Suffice it to understand that even then this guy was well known. If you were unsuspecting, he'd eat your money for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and assorted between meal snacks, and trademark game of choice was anti-grav pool.
Anyway, I let the Angopot know that I was interested in getting up a game with him and that I had a bankroll to back it up, even gave him a look at what was in the money belt. I told him to check my reputation if he wanted. I'd done enough gambling in the casino, always making sure to drop Randy Kay's name. With what I done in there over the last couple of days, I'd developed a reputation as a risk taker who knew the odds and beat them more often then not. Really, I just knew when to get out before the dealer's odds kicked in and blew me out of the water. And, anyway, I hadn't been in this sector that long, and Kay's name was probably not associated with anything horrid. The people who'd been conned already around here probably hadn't had quite enough time to figure out what I'd done. I was counting on that anyway. Before facing Grym, Randy Kay needed to have a shady but reputable persona.
Well, I walked back to the casino and to the bar to get a bottle of Old Time Religion. I was about halfway through it and thinking about the other 999,999 bottles which I assumed I was entitled to when a man in a bright green business suit tapped me on the shoulder. "Randy Kay?" he asked, his voice coming from deep inside his chest.
He said his name was Lewgan--a real uptight bean counter type of guy if I ever saw one--that he represented Mr. Grym, and that if I was interested I could be privileged to play a few games of pool with him. Well, I didn't wait for him to change his mind. Before continuing on, though, he did insist on looking at a couple of the credit note I had with me, just to be on the safe side I guess.
We walked through the casino, and he stopped and grabbed a couple of others who had apparently made the same request, and then we were taken to a suite high atop the building.
I tell you, those high rollers get to live in opulence. I guess the chance to play with them brings in a lot of business to the legit parts of the casino, and so owners don't mind giving them a great place to live and play. But, I tell you, this caught me off guard. Wall to wall carpeting; full-service bar complete with bartender and waitstaff; food from an attached kitchen, women of all colors, races, limb counts; and gamblers. Someone offered me a hookah hooked up to a bottle of some pinkish gas, but I really needed to keep my mind clear for this.
We were introduced, and the Grym came in. I don't know if you've seen him face to face, but he's huge. He's one of the biggest beings I've ever seen. And hulky. Muscles and brawn from head to toe. But the thing that impressed me the most was how light on his feet he was. You know, his leg joints were on the back, so he could step lightly and not disturb anything if you didn't see him coming. He seemed amiable enough, but there was something in his eyes, something in that lion's mane of hair he had that made me almost want to turn around right then.
"Welcome, gentleman, to my little party," he said, his teeth spreading out into a most disturbing grin. And the games began.
Have you ever played Anti-Gravity pool? It's a wicked little game. 12 pockets inside a three-dimensional box, and inside are the 21 balls. You select a cue ball from a rack of them, and inject it into the chamber. Instead of using a cue stick, you aim the ball and give it a push using strategically placed lasers. It's a fun game, unless you have a great deal of money wagered on it, and I brought a great deal of money that I'd put together in a string of Randy Kay engagements over the previous weeks. And now it was time for one last Randy Kay caper.
It was risky. It counted on me having the cue ball selection, and it counted on me having virtually my entire stash wagered, and a matching stash of Grym's money on the table as well. Well, at first Grym wanted us to play against each other. I guess he wanted to get a feel for our styles of play or something like that, so he just sat in a corner, taking long drags from the hookah, and watching each player intently. I had two or three matches against the players there, including that shoe shine slimer who got me in, and I actually won two of the three matches I played, increasing my stash considerably.
And, you know, this was the first time I think I was ever truly impressed with myself. With Grym watching everything I was doing, every match I played had to be on the up and up, and I still won. Finally, after hours of watching us play these matches, Grym decided it was time to get involved.
At first he picked Klympta, a Holigath businessman (I use the term lightly as I don't think what he does could probably be called a legitimate business). They each took their turns at the computer, surveying the field of pool balls floating in zero g, some in motion from previous rounds, and it was a great game, but Grym knew the exact right points on the cue to hit with the laser to give it the right spin and impart the right motion on the target, and he prevailed, winning all of poor Klympta's money.
Two more matches I sat through, and then he decided that it was time to play me. I hoped for luck, and my first break came to me. I drew the short straw, so that left me with the option of picking the cue ball. I made a big deal about picking out just the right ball from the rack. I checked each one for smoothness, for mass, for good reflectivity, and finally I said I was ready. The good part about this machine, though, was that the injection chamber was on the floor and was recessed into cube, so I could work a little magic without necessarily being seen by anyone else. As I started to load the ball into the chamber, I made a quick change and substituted it with a cue ball I'd brought along with me.
Before either of us started to play, however, we had to settle on a bet. Now, I had already taken some serious risks in previous matches by betting nearly all of my money, so when I suggested setting the wager as my entire stash, Grym didn't blink or get suspicious. It did, of course, generate some marvelous conversation among those who were watching.
Because I picked the cue ball, Grym got to break first, and he did a wonderful job, sinking several shots before finding the inevitable one that was just too hard to hit. Then, I stepped in. The cue ball I placed into the chamber had a small onboard guidance computer tied in to the `reading' glasses I was wearing, one that was designed to significantly enhance my chances of sinking a shot. In fact, the only way to not sink a ball was to try to intentionally miss, which I did once in order to let Grym get back into the game. But I'd sunk a lot of shots, and there were only six or seven others left to make. Of course, he made several, but the last two he couldn't make. And then, just like that, I beat the great Grym and doubled the money I brought with me, more so if you count the other money I'd won during the evening. And, let me set the record straight here. No way would I have beaten him without that cue ball.
Anyway, I was quickly informed that the tradition after Grym's gambling sessions was for the big winner to buy everyone a round of drinks at the main bar though normally that winner was Grym, and Grym never had to pay for any drink he ordered down there. So laughing and cursing, slapping each others' backsides, we went down to the main bar and I bought the round. Of course, you know, this lot wasn't going to stop at just one round. So, one person would buy, then another, then another. Old Time Religion is a great beverage, you know, but I never assumed that I'd take the company's motto to heart--'There's room for a million more..." I was, frankly, wasted out of my mind. Grym, on the other hand, was at a table to himself though occasional associates from the bar would stop by to chat. He was not happy that he'd lost though he'd never tried to spoil the fun. But he kept eyeing me in a most peculiar way. Even in my drunken haze, I knew I had to get out of town quickly, so I popped a couple of slow acting deintoxicant pills along with the peanuts at the bar
Anyway, while I didn't remember everything that had occurred when I woke the next morning, I remembered the way Grym was looking at me, eyeing me, and so I didn't waste any time getting to the spaceport. What I was certain of, though, was that I hadn't gone back to collect my cue ball. Oh well, I thought, maybe neither Grym nor anyone would notice. The cue weighed the same as any other, and unless you were inspecting it carefully, you probably wouldn't have found anything unusual. However, since I'm sitting here with you, I guess that he probably did. He must have been...
His story was interrupted by a fight going on between a detective (trust me, we Finders can tell if someone is a Finder also) with a bandaged nose and his girlfriend. They had come in a few seconds earlier, and he had seemed intent on finding something out. Now he was slapping her, and I heard her yelling something like `sister...daughter...sister...daughter...' Oh well, I thought, none of my business even though I detest anyone who would hit a female of any species.
"The part about Grym being suspicious," I took a sip of my drink, "you're right about that. As I understand it, he didn't think that you were so good that you could beat him. It's specifically why he chose to play you that night. And after seeing you play he still wasn't convinced. They didn't tell me about that stunt with the cue ball though. Bad luck there my friend." I made a tsk tsk sound and nodded my head in mock pity. "As I understand it, you were saved only because you took the first flight you could get out of Bethdish." I reached into my pocket to make sure that my com-phone was still on. I was expecting a call.
"Well, I'd pulled it off," he smiled, "and I wanted to get out before everyone had too much of a chance to think about it."
"Listen," I motioned to Chandler for another drink, "I wasn't going to bring this up, but why did you come back to Bethdish? You'd gotten what you apparently came for the first time. It must have occurred to you that he wasn't going to just forget what you had done." I actually had some very good ideas about why, which was the reason I had my com-phone on. But, somewhere inside, I was starting to feel sorry for Mr. Kay. Maybe it was the joy he exuded when talking about the hustle. But then it wasn't actually joy. It was more a sense of accomplishment, and I was starting to get the idea that his gambling was done more out of a plan than out of a need to gamble.
"Well, I came back because..." He suddenly looked puzzled. "Excuse me, but what the hell is your name?"
"Nick," I said. I felt very much like Max had downstairs. "We'll leave it at that."
"Well, Nick, there was some unfinished business here," he muttered. "It was...well, it was important to me to finish it." Mr. Kay, just for an instant, looked very distant like his thoughts were drifting towards something unpleasant and distant. I wasn't, though, prepared to accept his answer. I looked at my watch. It was just ten minutes to three, and I knew they would be coming for my prisoner at any time.
"Mr. Kay," I said, my face becoming, I'm sure, very serious looking, "tell me what you did with the stash. I don't believe for one second that you are sitting here before me a destitute man." My notebook came out of my jacket pocket, and I began searching for the actual figures. "You walked away, after drinks for the party, with nearly three million credits worth of Mr. Grym's money. I've checked other records too. Before you left for Bethdish, you closed out three accounts under various names, taking with you nearly two and a half million credits, part of which I'm sure must have been your original bankroll at the party. That's at least four and half million credits at my estimate left after the party."
"More or less," Mr. Kay confirmed, though he seemed to be listening to me less and less.
"Unless you are a fool or a financial klutz, and I haven't seen anything to make me think that you are, there's no way it can all be gone." I leaned back and took a long sip of my drink. The whisky was starting a little buzz in my head. Normally I could have down three or four more before even noticing, but either the whisky this evening was really good or I was just really tired and really confused. "Look, even on a wild gambling spree, you'd still have money left over, at least right now."
"You would think," he muttered, looking at nothing in particular and seeming to become withdrawn.
"Where did the money go," I asked. "If you tell me, I can pass that information along to Grym or his associates about how helpful you were when they come to pick you up." He gave no indication that he'd even heard me. "You do understand just how much trouble you're in do you? I told you how much it costs to arrange for this type of capture."
"Oh yeah, Nick, I know," Kay said, perking up just a little bit. "I stepped on the blue suede shoes didn't I?" For a second, he just stared at me and smiled blankly. Then, the sound of a light ringing came from my jacket, and I reached inside the pocket for the phone.
The phone activated as I flipped open the mouth piece. "This is Nick."
"Yo Nicky boy," my associate Mr. Lorre said to me. "We got into the bank, the one with the deposit box Mr. Manella checked with this morning."
"Good," I said, "you weren't caught. There was no trouble?" Mentally I began preparing for any additional legal costs I'd have to add to the expenses to be charged to Grym.
"Nah," he squeaked, "nothin' in the universe like havin' ex-thieves on your payroll! Huh? Am I right? Am I right, Nicky?"
"Uh, yeah," I grumbled. Lorre was very efficient, very persistent, but also very irritating at times. "Look, can you tell me what you found?"
"Uh-huh, but it's what we didn't find and where we didn't find it I think'll int'rest you." I'm sure Mr. Kay could see my expression sinking. I hadn't wanted to hear what I was now expecting to hear.
"All right, give me the low down," I said dejectedly. Mr. Kay flashed a knowing smile and adjusted his sunglasses.
"We found a deposit slip, filled out this morning, for 5.5 million credits." The sound of papers shuffling wafted over the line. "Now, as near as I can tell, this for money he already had stored here in the box." Damn, I heard myself think, he'd kept the loot right under our own noses. "Then, we found a receipt for, guess what, 5.5 million credits drawn from this account. Now, the money was sent to sum'tin called the Maritime Disaster Survivors Fund. Hey, Gatsby...hand me that GalactaFax, wouldja?"
"Shit!" I took my hat off and rubbed some beads of perspiration from my hair. A small man and his lawyer sat down in a booth near ours. The lawyer had a weird name, Kobiyashi or something like that, and I ran it through my mind to try and distract myself from what was happening.
"Thanks Gatz," Lorre squeaked. "All right, the Maritime Disaster Survivors Fund was endowed two weeks ago by, get this, Dean Policia. I believe that's one our boy's aliases, right?"
"Yeah," I sighed into the phone.
"There's some guy named Lytton Wardle Kluuns administering it, and he sent this fax to me telling me what the fund is. It has as its mission statement, `To Help the Survivors of Maritime Accidents Overcome the Grief and Pick Up the Pieces of Their Lives'. Heh! Standard nonprofit type thing, huh? But, here's where it gets int'resting." There was the sound of more paper being slid around. One of these days I was going to have to buy some decent equipment for Lorre to keep track of his paperwork on.
"Go on," I urged.
"Okay," Lorre said, "the thing is right now there's only one disaster that's been selected for coverage. About five years ago some freighter called the Cradle of Commerce blew up on it's way to Blackport Station. I'm still trying to get the story on that, by the way. Anyway, I got a second fax here telling me that the stupid thing is not endowed beyond dispersing funds to families associated with this specific disaster. So, when the money's gone, the fund's gone. Sound fishy to you?"
"Yeah," I took a drink of my whisky, "fishy."
"One last thing," Lorre said, "there was one other little item in the deposit box. It's a ship's manifest for the Cradle of Commerce, and it ain't no copy I can tell you that. It's original. I seen those Chromium Line packets when we broke into their local for the Tzatsat case last year. Anyway, the thing lists the cargo on board, it lists cargo specifically stored on one of the ship's pods it looks like, and it's got the names of everyone serving on that particular flight." Lorre paused. "I'm gonna be straight widja, Nicky boy, I'm confused. This fund may be for one flight only, and you'd think it was laundry for the money, but unless sumpin comes in to the contrary, the thing's legit. I checked with the Registry of Charities myself."
A sickening feeling began creeping its way through my stomach. It wasn't just the fact the substantial bonus Grym had promised if I could recover the money too was going out the window. It was also things were starting to sound way outside of what I expected them too, and worse I was starting to like Mr. Kay.
"Good job," I said softly. "Listen, you guys get yourself some sleep or some food, or whatever you want. Draw the money from petty cash."
"Sure thing, Ni..." I pressed the off button before he could finish. Mr. Kay was staring at me, smiling, and he seemed satisfied somehow, but not what I would call happy.
"What the hell's happening here?" I asked directly. "You know what that call was about. I can see that."
"I just had the money stashed there for awhile, that's all," Kay said innocently. "You knew Sal Manella had an account there, but no one bothered to check the deposit box because no one thought I'd be dumb enough to leave that much money on Grym's doorstep. I figured it was probably safer there than anyplace else."
"I don't mean that, and you friggin' know it," I gnarled through clenched teeth. "What's your game? What's all of this about? You came here...you had to know there was a great deal of risk. And for what? Huh? To give it all away to some charity fund that you endowed and from which you will receive nothing...not a single scrap of money...because it's all legal." He serenely smiled at me while my eyes nearly burned holes through his glasses. "What's your connection to the Cradle of Commerce?" I grumbled.
"I don't think I want to go into everything," he said, his smile slowly collapsing one of those big stars you hear about folding into black holes. "That ship is an interesting case in bureaucracy. A big Chromium Line freighter signals something on it's data collection booms to another while in a Lightspeed Dropout. Whether through miscommunication or misunderstanding, the actual nature of that message is forever in dispute. The only thing that is certain is this. Minutes after the message was sent, the ship exploded...it's FTL engines and associated matter and antimatter fuel releasing itself, discharging a tremendous amount of energy. They say the explosion was seen fairly clearly from the planets around Gettysburg Star." The phone rang at the bar.
"You're not answering my question," I protested, but he merely raised his hand to silence me.
"Anybody expecting a statue of a falcon to be delivered here?" Hawks yelled from the bar, the phone cradled on his shoulder.
"There were no witnesses to what happened there," Mr. Kay said. "The only way to be certain what happened was to find the ship's log and data recorders, and the Chromium Line spent weeks shifting through debris in the sector looking for them. The official line is that they were never found. There are rumors, though." His face was now almost completely blank. "Interestingly enough, the Chromium Line has a rather odd insurance scheme. If anyone dies on a Chromium Line flight as a result of negligence on the part of the company or it's crew, then their families are set for life. If anyone dies as a result of an unforeseen flight related disaster such as collision with interstellar objects or other ships, or as a result of space-related storms, the families are equally set." A strong tempest of anger flared across his face and then just as quickly fled to the interiors of his body. "But, if none of these things can be proven true, then the accident, according to the insurance guidelines, is an act of the gods and, therefore, not covered. The company inquiry and the independent inquiry, citing lack of conclusive evidence, ruled the explosion an act of the gods. Of course, a witness could have settled the whole thing."
"Go on," I muttered, and I placed my hat on the table.
"Now, here's a twist. At first it was thought that there may be some survivors who could act as witnesses." The information now was sounding exactly like what you'd hear an official inquest, and was being recited just as dispassionately. "There was an indication that a cargo pod had separated from the Cradle of Commerce just before the disaster, and one of the ship's pods was indeed found crashed in a shallow lake on Gettysburg Five. However, no bodies were found, and there was no real indication that anyone had been in it. Of course, the instrument panels were completely smashed, and there were no data recorders or logs on board to register what may have gone on before it crashed, so the assumption was made that it was blown away from the ship during the maelstrom."
I emptied the remainder of my scotch, and I was about to signal Chandler that I wanted another, but I decided to wait. Besides, my stomach was turning cartwheels inside.
"Three tragedies occurred that day, Nick," Mr. Kay said flatly. "Innocent people died, and that was emphatically caused by negligence on the part of the company, if for nothing else than because they did not take adequate care when selecting their Captains. Then the official investigation, through the manipulation of evidence and through the apparent lack of witnesses, concluded that the disaster was no fault and., therefore, the families were not entitled to insurance funds. And finally...finally..." Kay's voice began to break, and the dispassionate attitude he'd strove to maintain started to fall. His hand moved up to his eyes, and his fingers spread to catch tiny tears that were beginning to fall.
"What is it?" I said. "What's the third tragedy?"
"The third tragedy, Nick," he said with great difficulty, the mirrored lenses of his sunglasses staring directly into my eyes, "is that I survived."
Things were suddenly becoming clear in my mind, and I found myself sobering quickly. "Your name's on that manifest. isn't it Mr. Kay? Or at least your real name is" He nodded. "And you didn't come forward that you survived, with your testimony. Why didn't you?"
"Fear," he said, fighting himself to maintain his composure. "'Why didn't you stop it? Why didn't you prevent what happened? Why didn't you warn someone? Why did you leave while others stayed and died?' I'm not stupid, I thought, I'm not going to let them figure out some way to blame the whole thing on me." His fingers were almost complete under his glasses, shielding much of his face from me. "Just leaving almost killed me. If Gettysburg Five hadn't been so swampy I would have died." He giggled slightly, but it was not truly because he was amused. "Those cargo pods are hard to steer under the best of circumstances, and let me tell ya that explosion..." His voice began choking up again.
A couple of guys walked by us and picked out seats at the bar, and my eyes followed them until they sat down. I also scanned the room quickly to make sure no one was listening in. This was between Kay and I alone.
"I made it through the swamps, barely, after a couple of days and finally got myself onto the grounds of the spaceport on Gettysburg Five. There had just been a crash-landing there, and in the confusion I was able to pass myself off as one of the survivors of the crash. In a sense, I guess, I was." He traced his fingers down from his eyes, tracks of water following them. "I should have let the company blame me. At least then they could have cried negligence and the families would have gotten their money."
"That's why you've been doing all this," I said plainly. "The company wouldn't pay the families, so you decided that you would." I signaled Chandler that I wanted him to come to the table. While slipping my hat back on, he appeared next to us, casting an odd look upon Kay.
"Bring me a bottle of that scotch," I said. "And bring my friend here a bottle of Old Time Religion." I paused and smiled slightly. "Put it on my tab." Chandler nodded, and a minute later both of our bottles were on the table. My friend lifted it to this forehead and felt the coolness. He then popped open the top and eagerly drank a hefty gulp of it's contents.
At the next table, a heavy-set dark haired man with a rakish smile and an thin, light- haired gentleman who was scowling were engaged in some type of heavy conversation. "Harry," the thin fellow said, "you're supposed to be dead."
"Hey," I called to Mr. Kay, "what's your real name? You might as well tell me. You've gotten nothin' left to lose really."
"Byron Lyttle," he whispered. "Ensign. Line Number 86850013." He took another long gulp of his drink. "Do me a favor, Nick."
"Depends on what it is," I said. "You going to want another?"
"No," he said, "I'm going to give you a number. 19558-95675." I wrote it down on my notepad though I did not know what the number was for. "It's a confirmation code. You can contact Kluuns at the fund office to make sure the money's been dispersed to the families. I don't know if I'll get a chance to check on it for myself." Lyttle took another long gulp from his bottle. "If he hasn't yet done so, give him this number-- 57444-57443 Authorize. Those are the only codes I'm giving you. Don't try to figure out any of the others. Don't even bother guessing. I've made sure that this money can never get back into Grym's hands or into anyone else's other than those families. The original 500,000 credit endowment was specifically to pay Kluuns, so even he can't dip into the fund to steal from it."
"I can do that," I said, closing the notebook and sliding it back into my pocket.
"You've got to understand," Lyttle said, finishing the last part of his bottle, "that I didn't know where to begin. And then I stumbled into a card game on Gettysburg and won enough to get me back on my feet. Maybe I'm just lucky; maybe I've got innate talent. But how else, quietly, was I going to raise this much money as an out of work freighter jockey with no past?"
I was about to answer him, but suddenly, like a solar eclipse, the light from the ceiling was blotted out. Quietly, like a hunter, Grym himself had entered the room. Maybe he'd been there for awhile or maybe for only a short amount of time. In any case, he was there now, and Lyttle and I both knew what he wanted.
I reentered the main bar area of the Mare Inebrium, massaging my wrist and rocking my neck from side to side. I wasn't drunk, yet, but I planned to change that over the course of the rest of the night. In my right hand I carried my bottle of scotch, and draped over my right arm was a sack containing my fee for the case.
I know what some of you are thinking. Lyttle did what he did for all of the right reasons. His intentions were noble. His purposes were untainted by greed. I should have let him go. But things were that simple for me.
I'd taken on a case. I'd made a commitment to my client to succeed at all costs, and to be suitably paid for all costs when the time came. Money had been spent as expenses. Plus, for me, it was the game that interested me as much as anything else.
For an out-of-work, legally dead freighter jockey, Bryon Lyttle a.k.a. Randy Kay was crafty and canny, dodging my attempts to snare him until, out of necessity, he came back to Bethdish and walked into one of my traps. The game was fun, and I enjoyed the chase immensely. When the time came, under the terms of my agreement with Grym, I turned my prisoner over and received my payment.
At the main bar, Max stood and fixed a Leezing Insect Puree for an Ichinid draped over one of the bar stools. Blanche sat in a corner of the room, sleeping in one of the booths, and picture of sleeping beauty. Larrye stood dejectedly by the silent sound system on the performance stage. Finally, Tweedy sat on a barstool drinking what looked like his third Orangewater Fizz.
"I need to pay my tab, Max," I said, handing him my ticket from upstairs. "Add this to what I've had down here."
"Another case closed, huh Nick," he said as he took both my ticket and the new 100 credit note I gave to him. He held it to the light, and then placed it under one of the ultraviolet scanners he had nearby. Apparently he saw both the watermark and the ultraviolet writing imbedded in the paper. Then, he slipped it in the drawer and started to give me my change.
"Keep the change," I said, "give it Blanche. She looks like she needs it."
"She made the mistake of asking me for a ride," Max said, "I was supposed to get outta here two hours ago, but there was a slight problem."
I cocked my head towards Tweedy. "Yeah, I know."
"I've left a message with the owner about the whole problem with the insurance, but who knows when they'll get back to me on this one." I was about to say something disparaging about insurance representatives, but another thought occurred to me before I did.
I reached into the bag of money Grym had just given me. I counted out enough to pay my staff and to, no doubt, restock my petty cash supply, and then I gave the bag to Tweedy. "Is that enough to cover Larrye's insurance," I asked..
Tweedy took the bag and began greedily searching through it. "More than enough I'd say, Mr..."
I smiled at him and moved right up into his face. "Mr. `don't ask questions, don't stick your nose where it's not wanted, and don't bother me if we're anywhere near a dark alley.' Answer your question?"
Max smiled and took off his apron. "Larrye, you're on," he said as he scratched his mustache and walked towards Blanche. Larrye looked as if he could have walked on air without the aid of one of the bar's hover waiters. "C'mon Blanche," Max said as he struggled to sit her up, "let's get you to your nice bed." He started to help her out of the booth while she muttered sleepy protestations.
"Ex-excuse m-me," Tweedy stammered just as I was starting to leave. "There's more than is needed here. Do you want your change?"
"No," I grumbled at him, "whatever's left over send to the Maritime Disaster Survivors Fund," and I walked out the door, through the anteroom, and up the stairs into the city streets. It was nearly 4AM, and I had a bottle of scotch with my name written all over it.
For anyone who cares, I don't know what happened to Bryon Lyttle. I haven't seen either he or Grym since that night. Though I have regrets about what had to be done, I had my obligations to fulfill and my game to play, and I would change nothing about what I did that evening, including giving most of the money away for Larrye's insurance. Just because I enjoyed playing the game, it didn't mean that the prize for winning was worth keeping.
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